Thursday, October 13, 2011

`To Keep Art From Being Too Refined'

With his Tuesday post at First Known When Lost, Stephen Pentz includes a lovely painting, “A Clearing in the Wood” (1942) by Eliot Hodgkin. The English artist, who died in 1987 at age eighty-one, specialized in still-lifes. I see no portraits and few landscapes among his works available online. To the editors of The Studio, an art magazine in England, he wrote in 1957:

“In so far as I have any conscious purpose, it is to show the beauty of natural objects which are normally thought uninteresting or even unattractive: such things as Brussels sprouts, turnips, onions, pebbles and flints, bulbs, dead leaves, bleached vertebrae, an old boot cast up by the tide. People sometimes tell me that they had never really ‘seen’ something before I painted it, and I should like to believe this…”

Art cleanses vision. Attentively read, passages in Clare, Ruskin and Thoreau sharpen visual acuity. Nothing, correctly seen, is “uninteresting,” to use Hodgkin’s word. Look again at "A Clearing in the Wood." Hodgkin is no photo-realist. There’s a softness to his lines, not a hard focus, but without sacrifice of detail. The time depicted appears to be early autumn – a light fog (“Season of mists”), mushrooms and moss, brown leaves on the ground, trees largely leafless. In design and palette, though not season, the painting recalls Albrecht Dürer's Das große Rasenstück (Large Piece of Turf ).

Consider another Hodgkin painting, “Leaves and Tubers” (1941-42), with a palette similar to “Clearing.” So too is the complicated mesh of diagonals. Scroll down to read of Hodgkin’s interest in creating a “pictorial record” of the “colonization of London’s bombed sites by wild flowers-willow herb, ragwort, etc.” He chooses to paint tubers, the appendage in which some plants store nutrients. They are visually interesting but also suggest energy, fecundity, a future – priceless wartime qualities.

In Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Unloved Plants (2010), Richard Mabey writes about the remarkable efflorescence of flowers and other plants in London’s bomb sites. The English botanist Sir Edward James Salisbury documented the phenomenon in Weeds and Aliens (1961). Citing Salisbury’s work, Mabey mentions both plants Hodgkin specifies – “the purple surf of rosebay willowherb – already christened `bombweed’ by Londoners” and “The jazzy chrome flowers of Senico squalidus (Oxford ragwort – an eighteenth-century immigrant from the slopes of Mount Etna) had graffitised the rubble of London’s Wall.” Mabey writes:

“Professor Salisbury logged a total of 126 species in all. It was a weed storm, a reminder, if anybody needed one, of how thinly the veneer of civilization lay over the wilderness.”

The art of nature seems mortally bound to the nature of art. Randomness and order intermingle. Anthony Hecht writes in “The Gardens of the Villa D’Este,” collected in his first book, A Summoning of Stones (1954):

“For thus it was designed:
Controlled disorder at the heart
Of everything, the paradox, the old
Oxymoronic itch to set formal strictures
Within a natural context, where the tension lectures
Us on our moral state, and by controlled
Disorder, labors to keep art
From being too refined.”

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